Let’s Dance

Let’s Dance (single edit, video).
Let’s Dance (LP).
Let’s Dance (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live w/Tina Turner, 1985).
Let’s Dance (live, 1987).
Let’s Dance (live, 1990).
Let’s Dance (live, 1996).
Let’s Dance (live, 2002).
Let’s Dance (Live By Request, 2002).
Let’s Dance (live, 2003).

It begins in hysteria. A mass of singers urge each other upward, moving in thirds, pursued by a brittle-sounding guitar; the drums, bass and horns convulse in eighth notes. It’s a collective explosion, one you’ve heard before—it’s the climax of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” a rave-up to drive audiences mad. For “Let’s Dance,” it’s just the intro.

“Let’s Dance” is a mutant hybrid of a pop song, one bred to conquer. Bowie and his producer Nile Rodgers crafted the track to “pop” when heard on the radio (“It’s got a hard cut, very high on treble—it sears through,” Bowie said at the time) but also made the beat heavy enough to command the dance floor. The seven-minutes-plus version (on the LP and the 12″ single) is expansive: as it goes on, it becomes a series of set pieces (percussion solo, brass solo, guitar solo), as if a DJ is shuffling through dance instruction records. The single edit is remorseless, all economy and punch—Stevie Ray Vaughan’s early appearance is truncated to a single note, his later solo kept within bounds and faded out quickly.

Even in its long version “Let’s Dance” seems streamlined—it starts mid-leap, stays in the air. The verse and refrain are fused together (the falling “let’s dance!” phrase alternates with every verse line), while the hook-filled bridge could double for the chorus, and it ends with the track’s dramatic peak: Bowie, singing over the “Twist and Shout” buildup, makes two aborted attempts to move up (“if you should fall“…”into my arms…”)—he’s just baiting the listener now—until finally breaking out with the fifth-spanning “trem-ble like a FLOW-ER!

A still-reliable way to get a hit is to write a song that calls people out to dance, sets them spinning, the song celebrating its own power. “Let’s Dance” follows that script, but it’s still weird, in a Bowie way: it’s not quite comfortable as an emcee. The refrain chorus vocals sound hectoring; Bowie croaks out the second verse like he’s still in character from his vampire movie The Hunger; there are odd phrases in the lyric that read like poor translations (“serious moonlight,”1for fear your grace should fall“); the mainly “acoustic” instruments sound like synthesizers. There’s a severity to “Let’s Dance,” from the imperative mood of the refrain (a set of commands from one lover to another) to how the instruments are recorded (sharply, massively) and mixed: often separated, kept in their own worlds, each threatening to dominate the track. Listening to the final mix is like spinning past row after row of iron sculptures.

That said, “Let’s Dance” still works on the dance floor (I saw it first-hand the other weekend) and it fit the key of its time: few songs scream “1983” like it does. It’s arguably the most popular Bowie song, more than “Changes,” more than “Young Americans” or “Life On Mars” or “Rebel Rebel” or “Space Oddity.” A few bars of it herald Bowie’s cameo appearance in Zoolander; it could stand for Bowie’s entire canon, easily reduced to a ringtone. The biggest single of Bowie’s life, “Let’s Dance” hit #1 in the UK, #1 in the US, #1 in Canada, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway. It made him, at last, the colossal celebrity that he had always intended, had always pretended, to be.

“Let’s Dance” was also coronation music for Bowie’s latest incarnation, the hipster CEO figure seen on stage throughout 1983 and starring in Let’s Dance‘s run of hit videos—the blond bouffant, the lockjaw, the designer suits with the dangling, unknotted neckties, the golf gloves, the modest dancing. As one of Tom Ewing’s commenters said, this was Bowie as “an avatar of pure fame,” becoming an international trademark of his own music, like the Apple logo or the Nike swish. The Man Who Sold Himself to the World, which bought him.

Bromley’s Billy Idol was an inadvertent parent. Late one night in the autumn of 1982, in the drafty VIP section of a New York club called The Continental, an inebriated Idol was babbling to Nile Rodgers until he nearly vomited on him. Dodging Idol’s spew, Rodgers escaped from the table and spied Bowie sitting alone in a corner of the room.2 The two began to chat and spent hours talking about everyone from Henry Mancini to Louis Jordan, swapping Iggy Pop stories (one of Rodgers’ early bands had opened for the Stooges in the late Sixties). Soon afterward, Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his next record, dumping Tony Visconti, who had already booked time to work with Bowie in December—an irked Visconti wouldn’t produce Bowie again for nearly 20 years.

Visconti’s ouster wasn’t a surprise. Bowie, looking for a new record contract and wanting hits, wanted to work with an entirely new cast. He already had broken up his classic rhythm section. Now even Carlos Alomar was gone (temporarily), with Bowie’s people refusing Alomar’s customary request for a raise and instead just offering him scale: Alomar, insulted, walked.

In Rodgers, Bowie saw a proven hitmaker and also a hidden classicist: someone who had kept black popular music traditions alive within a contemporary sound, first with the coiled precision of Chic (whose records seem like a jazz trio’s interpretation of disco, with Bernard Edwards’ bass as the saxophone) and then with a harsher, “post disco” minimalist sound that Rodgers had developed on Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo, Material’s “Come Down,” and his own Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove (recorded just before Let’s Dance). The latter records, however, hadn’t sold: Rodgers was coming off a string of flops before Bowie enlisted him. And Rodgers was at first disappointed to learn Bowie wanted him to make hits, because Rodgers thought he’d have the chance to make an avant-garde rock LP, a “Scary Monsters 2,” as he later said.

Bowie, spending much of 1982 making The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, had brought along on his travels mix tapes of Sixties soul records: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye, Etta James. The immediacy of these records, their collective insistence, their open air of simplicity masking stark emotional depths, appealed to Bowie, who had spent the past half-decade writing gnomic parables, prying apart his old songs, trying to erase himself. Bowie wanted a public again, so he set about writing public songs—exhortations, common causes—keeping his lines (relatively) simple, writing words meant to be sung back at him.

Bowie being inspired by black music wasn’t anything new, of course. He began by slavishly imitating R&B (“Liza Jane,” “I Pity the Fool,” “And I Say to Myself“) and again a decade later with the Philly Soul Young Americans. And apart from his folk-plagued late Sixties, soul had been the continual undercurrent of Bowie’s music. The core of the Berlin records is the doings of a mysterious funk band; Station to Station is apocalypse disco; Bowie sang James Brown songs onstage as Ziggy Stardust; Diamond Dogs owed as much to Isaac Hayes as it did George Orwell. Let’s Dance was just exposing the foundation again.

In late 1982, Rodgers flew to Switzerland to hear Bowie’s new material. Bowie played him “Let’s Dance” on acoustic guitar: it was a folk ballad, a Byrds-like piece, which it remains. When stripped down to its melody and chords, “Let’s Dance” is a somber song, one tinged with melancholy. Its verse/refrain is mainly built on the dark, ominous sound of B-flat minor,3 with only a few fleeting escapes to Gb major (by contrast, the bridge is centered on the steadier Db major). Pried out of the metallic casing that Rodgers devised for it, “Let’s Dance” can seem fragile, prematurely regretful. The singer hopes that the dance he’s asking for, the moment that he’s devising, will cause his lover to finally commit to him, to give him the life he’s always wanted, but he fears that even if his plan works, it will only be for a moment. There’s a jittery impermanence in “Let’s Dance,” a desperation beneath its imperious tone; it’s the song of a man trying to cheat fate, to make his own luck. Bowie returned to this original vision of the song in his later years, turning “Let’s Dance” into a mood piece.

At the time, though, Bowie told Rodgers he thought “Dance” was a potential hit. Rodgers just shook his head. How could you have a song called “Let’s Dance” that you couldn’t dance to? For Rodgers, this paradox was a sign of white privilege. Black artists, Rodgers later contended, are usually forced to work far more literally—if a black band has a song called “Let’s Dance,” it has to be a dance song, he said. “It’s not because there isn’t interesting intellectual subject matter for black artists to delve into, it’s the fact that you won’t get played,” he told David Buckley.

So Rodgers got to work in Switzerland, making a studio demo of “Let’s Dance” with Erdal Kizilcay, who first played a florid, Jaco Pastorius-inspired bassline. Rodgers, trying to beat the song into a single, reportedly told Kizilcay “don’t play that shit—it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s.” The two worked out a more restrained bassline, a set of alternating hooks: a four-note stepwise descent, and a more static five-note pattern that either fell a step or stayed on the same note (first heard at 0:15 and 0:11, respectively, on the LP). On the studio “Let’s Dance,” the line’s played by Carmine Rojas, whose Fender bass is mixed with a synthesized one (an old Bowie trick—Visconti’s bass on The Man Who Sold the World is often echoed by a synth bass.)

While Rodgers was in Switzerland, Bowie kept showing him things: jazz album sleeves, Little Richard photographs, Bowie’s enormous LP collection that dated back to his teenage days in Bromley. Rodgers later told Paul Trynka that it was like being offered “a snapshot of Bowie’s brain” at the time; it was Bowie, subtly, getting Rodgers into the state of mind that Bowie required, leavening Rodgers’ contemporary music knowledge with a revisionist’s deliberate perspective.

“Let’s Dance” is the fruit of this approach: it’s an Eighties pop song that “organically” samples Fifties and Sixties hits (even the title calls back to the old Chris Montez hit Bowie had played with the Kon-Rads). There’s not only the “Twist and Shout” raveup, but the main horn riffs are inspired by (almost taken wholesale from, actually) Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn soundtrack. And Stevie Ray Vaughan, after taping his guitar solo, admitted he was straight-out playing Albert King licks. Rodgers thought Bowie’s hiring of Vaughan was a mistake, but Bowie, who had seen Vaughan weather a poor reception at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of ’82, had a veteran stock-picker’s sense of a future winner. Vaughan’s blues guitar solo is in keeping with “Let’s Dance”‘s sense of being a sampler of American musics, a catalog in jumps: electric blues, funk, Hollywood jazz, rock & roll, Latin (the highly-mixed presence of Sammy Figueroa‘s woodblocks).

“Let’s Dance,” the first song recorded for the album that it named, was crafted in the Power Station. Bowie already had recorded Scary Monsters there, but by 1982, the Station had developed its trademark drum sound: gated snare reverb. It was the crushing beat of Let’s Dance, as well of the Eighties. While Visconti’s Harmonizer-altered drums on Low was a predecessor of the sound,4 the “classic” Eighties gated snare was developed concurrently at the Power Station by engineers like Bob Clearmountain, and at London’s Townhouse, where in 1980, on Peter Gabriel’s third album, Hugh Padham developed the sound for Phil Collins’ drum tracks.5

Engineers were always trying to better record the “snap” of a snare drum being hit. It’s an endless task, as a recording never quite captures the exact sound when heard live. Attempts at miking the snare in a reverb-heavy room like the Power Station wound up with the mike also picking up all of the echoes of the snare hit, and so muddying/dissipating its power. Power Station and Townhouse engineers hit upon the same solution: place a close mike (to capture the actual hit) and then a pair of stereo “ambiance” mikes above the kit, the latter using high compression and equipped with noise gates (so the mikes would capture the reverb of a stick hitting the snare for a half second or so, then snap off). This way engineers could get the hard “snap” of the hit with a dose of explosive reverb, yet without any secondary echoes.

So the snare hit became abstracted—it became a block of pure force, as precise and as alien-sounding as a drum machine but with more power. This sort of inhuman precision, an acoustic instrument turned into a synthetic giant of itself, defines “Let’s Dance”—not just Omar Hakim’s drums but even Figueroa’s percussion sounds like a mechanical rattlesnake. That’s not to downplay the brilliant workings of Rodgers’ arrangement: the way the horns and the bass play off each other, Hakim’s intricate bass drum pattern, which only repeats every eight bars (Duran Duran later admitted stealing it for “Union of the Snake”), the wide use of space in the mix, so that every instrument’s appearance seems like an event.

The single mix boiled all of this down to an ultimatum; the extended take allowed some room to breathe, letting Rodgers do a Chic-style “breakdown,” gave Vaughan his first moment in the spotlight, and a few oddities slipped in, like the cacophonous 22-bar brass solo that sounds more like the World Saxophone Quartet than any contemporary R&B horn section.

The producer Tony Bongiovi had wanted his Power Station to replace the intimacy of the Seventies “dry” sound (which he compared to that of a doctor’s office) with a hotter, more “live,” more communal sound. (It didn’t really turn out that way—many Eighties records sound far less “live” today than their Seventies counterparts.) “Let’s Dance” is metaphorically Bowie attempting a similar move, exchanging mystery for mass connection. Bowie songs tend to be from fractured individual perspectives: even “Changes” or “Rebel Rebel,” songs that audiences have taken for themselves, are at their core weirdly personal songs, still unknowable. “Let’s Dance,” is Bowie trying to be communal: it seems intended to be shared, with its lyric’s emphasis on the plural (even “they” are playing music on the radio), how its chorus is like a pep cheer. It’s open, expansive, a song meant to be flung out to a crowd.

But go back to that day in Switzerland, when Bowie played his sad, fragile song to Rodgers. Was he sacrificing it?  Bowie knew that Rodgers, a brilliant arranger, could make a wallflower ballad into a shining dance anthem, could case its insecurities in a dazzling set of mirrors. He gave the song away to be corrupted: wonderfully, as it turned out. “Let’s Dance” finally made Bowie. But what had it made of him?

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released 17 March 1983 (EA 152, c/w “Cat People,” #1 US/UK). David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with the “red shoes” of the lyric serving as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few random images: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street, the boy and his girlfriend painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery, an immaculate Bowie playing his song in an outback bar.

1: “Serious moonlight,” according to Rodgers, was Bowie referencing Rodgers’ habit of calling a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once called the phrase as his attempt at an “Americanism.” However, Nicholas Pegg offered the mad and quite possibly accurate theory that Bowie was referencing an Aleister Crowley poem, “Lyric of Love to Leah,” whose lines include “let us dance beneath the palm/moving in the moonlight” and later “come my love, let us dance/to the moon and Sirius!” I.e., the Sirius Moonlight.

2: This is the most colorful and hence my favorite version of the meeting at the Continental (Rodgers told it to Buckley). The reality may have been more prosaic: there are other stories where Bowie and Rodgers sit side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello, or where a less-drunk Idol graciously introduces Rodgers to Bowie.

3: According to the official sheet music, it’s A minor/F major for the verses, G/C/D  for the bridge. However, a Japanese full band score puts the song more accurately (IMO) in the key of D-flat, with Bb minor/Gb for the verse/refrain, and Ab/Db/Eb for the bridge.

4: In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the “clap” sound we’ve got now.

5 Collins fell in love with the gated snare. Besotted, he dedicated his work in the Eighties to its worship: cf. the Collins-produced “I Know There Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against a set of all-devouring drums.

Greg Milner’s excellent Perfecting Sound Forever was key to understanding the development of the gated snare. Thanks to Lance Hoskins for sending me the Let’s Dance full band score some time ago.

Top: Martin Scorsese, The King of Comedy (1983); Aboriginals witness the nuking of Sydney in the “Let’s Dance” video; Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, ca. 1984; Let’s Dance, LP, 12″ single front and back (the latter illustration either predicting or ripping off Keith Haring).

49 Responses to Let’s Dance

  1. jopasso says:

    From untouchable myth to stadiums superstar.
    I have weird feelings towards this. I have never known whether consider it the last album from the first period, or the first album from the second period. This has always kind of upset me.

    Funny feelings too. When I bought it, and saw the VHS concert back in 83, I said to myself, the man looks old.
    Nowadays when I revisit it, I think, well he was incredibly young and full of energy.
    Anyway, great song and great writing

  2. MC says:

    Great, informative post. I suspect this will be one of the more polarizing entries. For myself, as a longtime Bowie fan (since the Scary Monsters phase), I’ve never quite gotten over the feeling of letdown when I first heard this. I appreciated the occasional excellence of the album (particularly China Girl), and saw it, as many did, as the Young Americans of the 80’s, but the title song seemed crushingly annoying and insipid and still does – though I think I’d like it better if it hadn’t opened the door to the Reagan-era Dark Ages. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes’ movie) perfectly captured the feeling I couldn’t quite articulate as a teenager that Bowie in the 80’s had been replaced by a mendacious, baggy-suited imposter (the Brian Slade transformation into Tommy Stone), while the 90’s Bowie (which for me begins with Tin Machine) represented the return of the real thing, as it where, though maybe a lot more erratic in achievement.

    Again, well-done enough to make me listen to the song again and re-think my position somewhat. Love the King of Comedy still as well!

  3. Jeremy Earl says:

    Wow, I can’t wait to read this. But later.

  4. Jasper says:

    Great writing, lots of details I didn’t know.

    I still love this song, not only because it was my introduction to David Bowie, the song that got me to wish to get the album for my 14th birthday. I got it and could not stop playing it. To me it is a great track from Bowie’s last of his great records, a pretty perfect pop album.

    I just spend a couple of days in Berlin, for some reason that I could not figure out there was a lot of the Danish version of the poster for Christiane F pasted on the wall of a building.

  5. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Brilliant – another highly informative post. I love Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organisation to bits and still don’t feel that they get the acknowledgement from music writers that they deserve. Apart from their rhythm section (Tony Thompson!), Chic had the most subversively astute lyrics on any dance album that I’ve heard, which were often wryly ambivalent towards the hedonism of the late 70s disco scene.

    But the problem with Rodgers as a producer is that was often hard for his vocalists to establish their presence on their own tracks. ‘Diana’, for example, the album that Rodgers and Bernard Edwards produced for Diana Ross (‘Upside Down, ‘My Old Piano’ etc.) in 1980, was completely remixed by Motown after they complained – in the words of producer Russ Terrana – that “it seemed like a Chic album with a Diana Ross voice. It wasn’t a Diana Ross album.” It was intriguing to compare both versions when Rodgers’ original recordings were finally issued a few years ago.

    And I think that something similar happened to Bowie, at least on this track. ‘Let’s Dance’ has a great sound, perhaps Rodgers’ best of the 1980s, but it’s easier to admire its surface sheen than to connect with it emotionally. Of course, Bowie’s willingness to rebrand himself *as* a brand in the eighties played a major part in this distancing effect as well.

  6. Abigail Ward says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Brilliant work. Loved the stuff on snare sounds. Going to see Nile Rodgers doing a talk on my birthday next month. ‘Let’s Dance’ will always be a favourite. For me it isn’t lacking in emotion at all. Anyone heard the intimate acoustic reading of it by M. Ward?

  7. Abigail Ward says:

    I’ve just read it again and it’s even better the second time round. Great line about the ‘all-devouring drums’ in the Frida song!

  8. ofer says:

    Here’s another theory on 80’s snare sound – it’s 50’s retro. people in control of where the culture is going are almost always the guys that grew up 30 years earlier; that’s why the 60’s were officially canonized and retroed during the 90’s, the 00’s had their 70’s retro (did someone say the strokes?) and now we have a huge 80’s retro (who would dare dream that a couple of years ago?). Now listen to 50’s tracks like “Rock around the clock” and songs by chuck berry and little richard – don’t the snare sound a lot like the gated 80’s sound? It also has alot to do with entry – listening to oldies before making “Let’s dance”.

    • col1234 says:

      this is a good point—the gated snare also was an attempt to give pop music a new “standard” dance beat, after the fall from grace of the disco beat, IMO. and it worked—the ’80s were in a way as goofy and as novelty-filled as the ’50s.

      i would call the sixties retro beginning much earlier, around 1986-87, if earlier. Definitely my high school years (’86-’90) seemed like a time of slavish Sixties worship and dire revivals—the returns of everyone from Crosby Stills Nash & Young to the Monkees, the wild overpraise for stuff like “Steel Wheels” and “Freedom”. We’ll be getting into some of this later, with DB’s never let me down and tin machine records…

      [edit] or I would say, as Simon Reynolds argues in his new book, that once a revival starts it never really goes away. The Fifties first come back in ’72, ’73 and have pretty much kept coming back ever since. The Sixties have been perpetually reappearing since the ’70s. And so on.

      • Brooksie says:

        I completely agree with Col1234; the turnaround for retro is shorter than 30 years. In the 70’s ‘American Graffitti’ came out in ’73 and was nostalgic for the pre-Beatles ’62. ‘Stand By Me’, and the Jackie Wilson / Ben E King chart entries happened from about ’86 onwards, and ‘The Big Chill’ was even earlier. The ‘second summer of love’ was supposed to be ’88. In the 90’s we had ‘Dazed and Confused’, Kiss donned their makeup again, and things like ‘Saturday Night Fever’ could be enjoyed without irony – the funky was ok. I also agree with the idea that once a revival happens it never really goes away, or, more accurately; once society can look back on an era ‘clean’ so to speak, with it’s filters on to emphasise the good and minimise the bad, the era will never again be out of fashion, as it can only ever truly be out of fashion when the era that follows it takes over. Abba and Disco, flares and bellbottoms – the 70’s were hated in the 80’s. Synths and hooks, studded belts and styled hair – the 80’s were hated in the 90’s. I have never and will never understand the 101 conversations I had with people in the 90’s who asserted ‘the 80’s were rubbish’ while living through one of the most mediocre (for popular culture anyway) decades we’d had since the 50’s. No matter how many times I pointed out that the same attitude existed towards the 70’s in the 80’s – people just couldn’t see it. Those people who insisted the 80’s fashions could never come back – which I bet they would – are usually the hillside grazers of culture who were the first to start wearing the tight jeans again, when the ‘kids’ started doing 80’s retro. As for this song; it’s good, but not great – enough to float Bowie as a top seller again. But the artwork that accompanied all the material he came out with in that era, was then and is now – naff in the extreme.

  9. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Thank you for pointing out how bizarre the lyric is! A lot of people get caught in the track’s commercial appeal and miss the oddities that make it a Bowie track. There’s “Serious Moonlight”, a phrase that seems to mock love songs and love narratives (albeit more subtly than “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine”), “For fear tonight is all”, a return to Bowie’s apocalyptic theme, and then there’s the bridge, which is about running and hiding. Hardly typical pop song subject matter.

    Let’s Dance the album is full of this stuff – “Modern Love” is an even better example, but I’ll talk about that when we come to it. The atmosphere of the album is the reason I’m still fond of it even if it did lead to Bowie’s mid-80’s decline. If Station to Station is apocalyptic disco, then Let’s Dance is schizophrenic post-disco. And you can dance to it!

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Forgot this bit –

      For me, Let’s Dance is epitomized by the album cover. The letters LETSDANCE splattered across it, connected only by the arrows between them, Bowie up in arms, looking away from us and giving a menacing Kubrick glare to some unseen character. Don’t forget the title’s double meaning, either: “Let’s Dance” is a call to the dance floor, but it’s also a violent threat.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s a very subjunctive lyric. Every part is about imagining something happening (you could look into my eyes) or wishing for it (let’s sway under the moonlight). Nothing actually happens.

    • Angie says:

      Oh, thank you, thank you. I’ve always though that Let’s Dance and Modern Love are two of the saddest songs Bowie ever wrote. Either one can make me cry when heard at the right/wrong time.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        “Modern Love” really is tragically beautiful, isn’t it? Can’t wait to talk about that one.

        “Let’s Dance” doesn’t really make me sad… it sends a chill down my spine, though. It’s an ominous song. As Anon pointed out the lyric is very fragmented; it’s a collection of fleeting ideas and passionless commands. The Goon Squad came to town, and they want us to dance.

  10. Remco says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with this song, it’s got some lovely vocals and the bridge is gorgeous but there’s also the annoying chorus in the intro and the dreadful synth-bass construct. I always preferred the nineties acoustic version because it didn’t have any of the annoying features of the studio version. Listening to it now, however, I think the acoustic/orginal version lacks something too.
    There’s a very intriguing tension in the studio version of this song, as if both the singer and the song are unsure whether they like this shiny new outfit they’ve squeezed themselves into. The way Bowie sings the first line doesn’t sound like he particularly wants to dance, there’s venom in his voice. Likewise the chorus, there’s no joy in their call to dance, as you say: it’s a command. Sung by robots.

    But somehow it works really well, it’s a perfectly polished pop song that doesn’t seem to like being a perfectly polished pop song. If he’d maintained this kind of tension and complexity on the rest of the album it would have been great. Unfortunately, only ‘China Girl’ works on the same level as far as I’m concerned. The rest of the album I just pop, some of it works, a lot of it doesn’t.

  11. diamond dog says:

    Its a superb piece of music and gets the write up it deserves well done. The surface gloss peels back to reveal a desparate love song relayed in a lyric as sparse almost as breaking glass. I love the prodution on it. I loved the way on the tour it segued from fashion making old and new fans scream with hysteric euphoria when they realised what was coming. I think its up there with the very best pop ever made. Clever bastards.

  12. swanstep says:

    This track is all over (Eno-certified) Anna Calvi’s ‘Suzanne and I’: Frida/Phil Collins drums, Calvi being her own Stevie Ray, and a swoopy vocal that constantly seems to want to become a bellow of ‘Serious Moonlight’.

    Anyhow, like a lot of people here, this track (and album) grated on and disappointed me at the time. But it’s grown on me, and Let’s Dance’s slightly wonky arrangement impressed more and more as the ’80s wore on.

    (whoops – could my previous post with my email add. in it be deleted please. Thanks!)

  13. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Like Remco, I have no idea how I feel about this song. For some, it was an introduction to Bowie and for others it was a well-written farewell note.
    Even though the backroom team has changed, I don’t see this as a big departure from his earlier work. It seems very much in the tradition of something like Golden Years, a slightly odd song inside a highly polished case. I think it very much belongs to the Space Oddity- Scary Monsters canon; unfortunately it also belongs to the eighties, best-forgotten body of work.
    When it first came out, it seemed fresh and uncluttered – at least to me – in comparison to much of Scary Monsters. Sure, the intro was a little annoying and I was taken aback by the – mercifully brief – lead guitar, but otherwise it seemed like a great singer and songwriter at the peak of his powers working in collaboration with the best producer/arranger around at the time. What could possibly go wrong?…
    Nowadays, if it came up on my iPod, I wouldn’t immediately reach for the skip button, but on the other hand I don’t think I would ever intentionally press play knowing it was there.

  14. Marion Brent says:

    I didn’t hate this on release, but it didn’t seem special either – it seemed to fit in with synth pop at the time, the Duran Duran hits etc. – and so I was disappointed because it was Bowie, and Bowie was meant to be special. Almost 30 years on, I still can’t really work out what I think of it. I’d say now it is a more complicated piece of pop than the Duran Duran hits of the same year, but it’s somehow hard to love. Which is the way I feel about the whole album really – objectively there are some interesting things going on there, but it’s still somehow anaemic and hard to love. Given that it was three years since his last album, there’s really not much new on it, either. Only 8 songs, three of which are covers, which leaves only 5 truly new tracks.

  15. Jeremy Earl says:

    I pretty much agree with Brendan O’Lear but I probably like the track more. It’s genius pop music really. When you really listen to the song you realise that it works on so many levels. I really love the “the cacophonous 22-bar brass solo” and it’s brilliantly arranged. Love the vocals – really powerful. I don’t really get to hear this track much these days though, as I rarely play the Lets Dance LP and I don’t listen to commercial radio, but when I do hear it its greatly appreciated.

    Worked really well on the Serious Moonlight tour which as a 12 year old I first got to see him live. Nostalgic times.

    Great write up once again :)

  16. Jeremy Earl says:

    By the way, although advertising it here this is a bit cheeky, I’ve started my own blog on books and literature. I was inspired by this site to do it but I’ve always been a bit of a writer. Check it out if anyone wants to:

    http://excelsiorforever.blogspot.com/

    Thanks.

  17. Gnomemansland says:

    A superb write up but in many ways you outline the very reasons the song and the LP (with the exception of Modern Love) seem so banal and formulaic in comparison with Bowie’s 70’s output. As you say Bowie had been singing James Brown in his Ziggy days and already explored soul and R&B admirably on Young Americans so why go back to it now? For the money – undoubtedly that was part of it. For the fame – again yes it as if Bowie is saying “heh I did this before and most of you were not paying attention so let me do it again and make it easy for you”. But ultimately he lost his way. The so trite lyrics “put on your red shoes and dance the blues”. The lumpen arrangement. Try singing Lets Dance in an Anthony Newley voice and you begin to hear what it is – one of Bowie’s 1960s pastiches of the 1950s but not of Rock N Roll but of British light entertainment.

  18. diamond dog says:

    I remember it sounding very fresh and very different to the new romantic sound which was still mimicking the low/heroes era. I still like it as it very much fits in the body of clever pop Bowie had previously produced. Would love to hear some demos its odd nothing has ever appeared. Love parallell of let’s dance being an act of violence pinstripe. Speaking of the cover what’s it all about?

  19. Maj says:

    Let’s Dance is a great pop song. Hilariously enough my fave versions of it have been the sad, slow ones. But I’ve learned to appreciate the studio/single versions. It really is a great song to dance to. The lyrics are not as interesting, deep, smart or playful as my favourite music from the 80’s period but hey, it’s a good song, any way you play it. Only when I heard God Only Knows I realized great artists can make a great song sound horrible – and that in turn made me a lot more grateful for the fact everything turned out really well with Let’s Dance.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I was 13 when ‘Let’s Dance’ hit and I recall a feeling of unwelcome omnipresence; it seemed to be everywhere for months; the song was on the radio all the time and the video was all over TV. I thought it was dreary, a bit frightening; and who was this guy with the blond hair and cheekbones?

    I didn’t really know who David Bowie was, but a few weeks’ later (thanks in part no doubt to the increased visibility the song gave Bowie) Les Dennis and Dustin Gee did a spoof of ‘Starman’ on their ‘Laughter Show’. I thought to myself ‘what a pretty song’ and my Bowie-fandom was ignited. I kept singing it to myself, I knew I’d heard it before but I didn’t know what it was called or when it was from.

    A little later my Godmother (thanks Carol) bought me ‘Changestwo’ for my 13th birthday and that settled it. I was officially A Fan. My teenage self had found an unexpected muse / hero / role model, someone that hit all the right buttons (ones I didn’t really know were there) and that was that. I was found out ‘Starman’ wasn’t about a ‘snowman’ (my mishearing of Les and Dustins spoof), I loved ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and realised I knew ‘Fashion’.

    ‘Let’s Dance’ was still in the charts and Bowie was everywhere. I started to think he was cool and someone I’d like to be like. ‘China Girl’ hit, then ‘Modern Love’ and it was humming that to myself at school that led to a conversation with a boy called Andrew (‘Hey that’s David Bowie’ – Me: ’I thought it was Queen’) which began a friendship that lasts to this day.

    So … Let’s Dance was my gateway into the World Of David Bowie, and a whole host of other things. I think it might have changed my life (or I could be getting carried away with moment here).

    I am so thankful for that song because it introduced me to a new world and an artist Iv’e followed – and quite frankly – loved – ever since.

    Gosh. Writing that actually made me a bit weepy. Wasn’t expecting that.

    ‘If you say run / I’ll run with you’.

  21. diamond dog says:

    That summer I left school so remember it well. I recently dug out the album and must say its well produced. Tony thompson drives the whole album and the horns were a fresh sound for me. I remember him appearing on the tube interviewed by jools holland. He was everywhere I rushed out for the 12inch which I played to death. When the album came out I bought the normal one and the pic disc some moths later. It was endless hunger pic discs , merry christmas mr lawrence soundtracks , taping the hunger on audio cassette in the picture house! Just to hear his voice ..when the tickets came out for the gigs you had to send off a cheque in the hope you got a ticket. I failed for wembley and birmingham they sent me the offer of milton keynes tickets which I jumped at. What a gig the first time I saw him ..admittedly from some distance ..got sunburnt and lost overnight after not being able to find my coach back to manchester. Also bought a bootleg cassette of wembley. Still got the programme …great days.

  22. Frankie says:

    I first heard the edited version on FM radio, as a preview to the upcoming album before it first came out. I appreciated all of the aforementioned elements, the “serious” irony of the lyrics. I was willing to entertain the new style but considered it a minor song (musical pun intended). Unfortunately I was completely aghast upon buying the album to find the song was undeservedly extended into what I thought was a giant space-filler cop-out for side A. That didn’t bode well for my repeated listening, I’m afraid. I remember being disappointed that the shorter, more concise version wasn’t used. I would have preferred that plus two more new songs, in the vein of “Ricochet” or “Loving the Alien” for that matter. That would have made the album feel like I got my money’s worth of new Mr. B at the time. I haven’t revisited it for some time, I confess, but reading this has inspired me to consider a more informed reappraisal. Thank you for fleshing the song out with pertinent background material. It’s informative and I enjoyed reading it a lot.

    • col1234 says:

      I think this (extended single taking up much of a side) was in part an industry thing at the time, though. Prince’s 1999’s 1st side is just “Delirious,” “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” in extended versions (which makes it one of the best LP sides ever, but that’s beside the point). The duran duran records also tended to have extended singles as LP tracks, e.g. “Planet Earth” on the first one.

      I’m guessing in part this was the last generation of albums to be sequenced/mixed as vinyl LPs first and foremost (one reason there’s only 8 tracks on “Let’s Dance” is that Rodgers/DB wanted it sound good—leave plenty of room on the vinyl, so it’s almost a dance EP with a few B-sides, really).

      • Remco says:

        I wonder what came first, the edit or the album version. While I would normally consider the album version the original (e.g. “Heroes” or “Rebel Rebel”) “Let’s Dance” seems to be a different story. The edit is obviously the pop song they had in mind while the album version sounds like they just added a few more minutes of instrumental breaks because the album needed filling up.

        While it may have been standard practice in the eighties to do extended versions of singles most artists had the decency to release such nonsense on separate 12 inch singles. The only exceptions I can think of are the aforementioned “1999” and just about every eighties single done by mister Bowie (’Loving the Alien’ is another example of how to ruin a perfectly good pop song by adding a vast amount of pointless instrumental breaks)

        I have to correct you on Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’ by the way. The single is just as long as the album version and yes, I am aware that I have now revealed myself as a Duran Duran connoisseur.

      • Frankie says:

        I realize now that I had no sense at all of any kind of extended dance piece, because I never listened to that kind of music and so it was alien to me. I was finding it musically empty, unfortunately. I’m intrigued that the song was first written on acoustic guitar and considering having fewer tracks for achieving an overall effect is an interesting compositional approach that I wouldn’t have ever considered. Thanks for pointing that out! I could see doing a tender low-key acoustic rendition of Let’s Dance that has potential for being intense, a la Scott Walker. Perhaps Mr. B was paying respects to the song’s first acoustic birthing with the quiet beginning he’d start the song with on most of his later concerts.

        Now I can remember those dance-extended EPs! Robert Fripp even made one! God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners had the distinction of being the world’s first double single-sided album. God Save The Queen was Side A, Under Heavy Manners was Side One That was a fave. I didn’t get Duran Duran despite the steamy videos but I did enjoy Tom Verlaine, and his extended EP of Five Miles of You is still fetish-ed fondly today.

  23. diamond dog says:

    I love the album version the guitar break is excellent stevie ray vaughan is given full reign ,as is the drum and conga breakdown. Prince was very guilty of extended versions , I purchased the infamous america which is 20 mins long it was a bit too long I’d say. I got into prince through 1999 being played pre show on the serious moonlight tour.

  24. Jeremy Earl says:

    I’m in the camp of preferring the extended versions. I’ve never really liked edited single versions. Remixes on the other hand, which became a curse on the 80’s. I dislike intensely!

    Diamond dog – I also have the Lets Dance picture disc. you get a lot of coloured vinyl these days but not picture discs.

  25. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Enjoyed Diamond Dog’s reminiscences of Milton Keynes. Couldn’t be further from my own experience. Milton Keynes was my third Bowie concert. At Wembley 76 I couldn’t have been more awestruck if aliens had whisked me off and forced me to have their children. At Stafford 78 I was right in the middle totally absorbed by the whole event. At Milton Keynes I was miles from the stage with almost the same group of people who’d been to Wembley, but we spent most of the time listening to the Wimbledon men’s final on a radio – and none of us had any knowledge of or interest in tennis. Once the concert began our chat focused on who Bowie looked like – eventually we realised it was Lucille Ball.
    And I got back to Manchester without any problems – “Take the train”.

  26. “exchanging mystery for mass connection” – best way to put it. For me, this record is of a piece with Young Americans. Neither are my favorite Bowie album, but both have some merits. They’re pop music, though, and it’s understandable that fans of Low and Diamond Dogs wouldn’t necessarily enjoy something like Young Americans or Let’s Dance. I prefer the stranger stuff, myself, but one thing I love about Bowie is that he, like Bob Dylan or Picasso, continually tries new things and doesn’t stick with one style or “voice”.

    I think “Let’s Dance,” the song, has one of Bowie’s finest vocal performances, and I think the arrangement’s pretty sophisticated for a pop song. Makes you wonder what Bowie and Phil Spector might’ve cooked up together if they’d ever had the chance.

  27. diamond dog says:

    This weekend went to see a Bowie tribute called Absolute bowie at a local pub venue. Great set and pretty good show looked the part but it was not until let’s dance that the whole venue was transported with an almighty aaahh aaahh aaahh ….it just reveals what a great piece it is. The vocal is superb the delivery of some of the lines is nerve tingling. So is serious moonlight crowley?

  28. Marq says:

    “The Man Who Sold Himself to the World, which bought him.”
    Great!
    It had never been a favorite for me, but I conquerd this well remembered girl with this` songs help, so again: Thanks David!

  29. Sigma Sound Philly says:

    Wonderful post.

    Interesting to see all the Duran Duran references above; even more interesting to note how heavily they also invested themselves with Nile Rodgers (and Bernard Edwards) in the 80s.

    Speaking of influential Mr. Rodgers, you should check out his blog, Living on Planet C. It is excellent and he posts daily. Recently, Nile revealed that when “Let’s Dance” was made, he was living next door to Tony Visconti in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. What are the odds? Same city, same street, same building, same floor: the fired producer and the hired producer of the same record!

  30. princeasbo says:

    A friend of mine was compiling a series of BowieRare Cds for his personal use and, finding your blog invaluable, recommended it to me. He was right to do so. Your style and scholarship are both solid–well done, sir. If your writing were on hard copy, it would do for DB what Ian McDonald (an influence?) did for the Beatles.

    On my blog, I try to mix criticism with fiction, phoney news and humour and without wishing to sound generic and Spam-like, you may find this slightly different attempt at critique of Let’s Dance interesting: http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/david-bowie-lets-dance/

  31. p2c says:

    Fascinating blog. I’ve been reading it backwards from NLMD…..

    Two quick points about LD from the perspective of a 14 yo American kid (me back then) who was besotted with the latest “new wave” from Britain in 82-83: 1) LD sounded utterly different than anything that was released that year. It was a unique, new sound on the radio. While a lot of long-time Bowie fans may have felt disappointed by it, I can attest that a lot of teenagers were thinking, what the hell is this? (in a good way!) 2) Amazingly, Let’s Dance was instantaneously informed and buoyed by his 70s work, and the success of the new album, in return, created a realization of who David Bowie was for millions of middle Americans. While the answer to the question, what would we think of LD or Modern Love right now were they by some unknown young singer who disappeared shortly after the songs left the charts, is likely grim, it’s a nonsense question: They were David Bowie songs and even 14 year old Americans could be quickly educated as to what that meant (thanks, MTV). David Bowie – a name we’d heard somewhere, with vaguely sinister associations, but now revealed to us as this mysterious, otherworldly, lovely looking artist – not a pop singer, no! – an artist. And really, beneath the pristine production values, there is the warble, the ragged cry, the breathy whisper that marked an artist performing, not a mere singer. I’d contend that with all the interesting, out-of-their-time elements present on LD (horns and blues guitars, not synths and more synths), it’s the vocal that made this song strange for 1983. That’s NOT how Duran Duran sang a new wave song!

  32. Momus says:

    Some additional angles on this track:

    1. Bowie interviews at the time explained that while filming with Oshima on Raratonga, Bowie had been listening (Desert Island Discs-style) to some of the very first jazz records he’d liked in the 1950s, by people like Stan Kenton. This in itself was a somewhat dizzyingly postmodern proposition: this pale Englishman was tanning on a Pacific island while filming with a Japanese director, listening to jazz records from the 1950s in the early 1980s. Then the video adds Australia, and nuclear war…

    2. Watch the video for Forbidden Colours (the Sakamoto theme from the Oshima movie Bowie was filming) and you’ll notice that Bowie is very visibly absent, despite clips of just about everyone else in the movie. Clearly Bowie’s management forbade David Sylvian to use images of Bowie to promote his single. There’s a tangible animus from the Bowie camp against certain of the more obvious Bowie progeny (Numan, Sylvian) then seeing action at the top end of the charts.

    3. Let’s Dance is, amongst other things, a differentiation strategy: it’s Bowie staying one step ahead of his imitators by stepping backwards instead of forwards. So there’s a Beatles reference, the modern jazz stuff, a certain championing of experience (“I was around for all this great music when you guys were still in short pants”) over youth. There’s also an embrace of a certain conservatism (a step away from Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk’s children, a step away from electronic instruments and New Wave experimentation), and a disavowal of some of his 1970s alienation (Bowie’s critique of Numan was that “he’s really limiting himself” by dealing with Man-Who-Sold-The-Worldish alienation).

    4. The Raratonga / Australia context (the promo film added Singapore) can also be seen as a differentiation strategy, taking Bowie far outside the British context of — for instance — The Human League and Heaven 17. He wasn’t going to compete with his children (though he had endorsed Human League, before they became serious chart contenders).

    5. The trouble with Bowie’s “staying a step ahead” differentiation strategy is that — in classic postmodern fashion — he steps forward by stepping back and reviving something. The new style is a rejection of the Modernist idea of the avant garde (which still powered New Wave), and also a rejection of marginality and experimentation. There’s an interview where Visconti says that Bowie “really sold out” at this point: the accusation is put to Bowie, who actually looks very hurt and angry and says he’s never believed in starving in a garret.

    6. At the time, I did feel Let’s Dance was a betrayal — it was a Bowie record that even uncool people could like. Nevertheless, I think the ripped, Expressionist, semi-Japanese way he sings “flower” is utter genius. He really needn’t have worried: that note alone sends all the imitators packing.

  33. prankster36 says:

    I’m a relative Bowie newbie (though I’m beginning to feel a lot more knowledgeable as I read through this blog!) so forgive me as I float a theory that may be old hat to hardcore fans, but: is it possible that the ultra-slick, mainstream Bowie of this era is just another one of his characters? I mean, obviously he adopted a new look and sound and everything, but what if the seemingly clueless, corporate sellout Bowie of interviews of this period is as much a persona as Ziggy Stardust? This isn’t to excuse stuff like his disassociation from his sexual past at the height of the AIDS epidemic, but the consensus seems to be that Bowie completely lost it and became a joke during this era, to the point where 20 years on people were still rolling their eyes at him (the other day a radio DJ, playing the new single, mentioned that he didn’t think Bowie had done much worth listening to in 40 YEARS, which if he was being literal means he was writing off the Berlin era along with everything after…)

    And yet there’s something a little too neat about this era; the stuff that rates the most criticism, the overproduced decadence and desperate playing to the mainstream, falls within a remarkably short time frame–just five years, from Let’s Dance to the Glass Spider tour, and less if you don’t want to count Let’s Dance. I’ve been working my way ahead through this blog, and I’m starting on the Tin Machine era; as much as this period is dismissed, it’s clearly not an outright embarassment, and indeed, feels remarkably relevant. In fact, it seems like Bowie was once again displaying his knack for smelling which way the wind was blowing, with its grungy distortion and raw power, which seems to anticipate the move to Grunge right around the same time.

    So it’s tempting for me to think that, if Bowie DID lose his astute sense of cultural shifts and ability to adapt, he hadn’t done so at that point in time. I’m not saying it was all an act, or that Bowie was making deliberately bad music, or anything. But it’s not hard to imagine Bowie in the early 80s, thinking, “I’ve been in the music business for almost 20 years, most of it has been a frantic nightmare even when I was getting critical hosannahs and a cult following, plus I just produced a run of my best work and people didn’t understand it. Culture’s getting more shamelessly materialistic and I’ve already buried the 60s. Maybe I should just adopt a new character, bury my conscience for a while, make shitloads of money with a massive hit record, and then I can do what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

    Yeah, yeah, I know. Way too neat, and it basically assigns Bowie psychic powers. Still, can’t help thinking there’s some truth in there, and that people are too quick to latch onto the “Bowie lost his soul in the 80s” narrative. Maybe he just deliberately took it out and put it in a vault for a bit.

  34. Vin says:

    The “Twist and Shout”-style crescendo isn’t the only Beatles reference/rip-off. The melody of “because my love for you” borrows that of the opening line of “She Loves You”: “you think you’ve lost your love”, also echoing lyrically the third verse’s “you know it’s up to you”. Granted, the Beatles’ phrase goes ever upwards, while Bowie’s drops back on the last word, but to a note that McCartney sings as harmony to Lennon’s lead (although it’s really a dual-lead Fabs vocal). When I first heard “Let’s Dance” this melody line seemed naggingly familiar, yet it was probably months before the penny dropped for me. The question is, was this a deliberate “quote” by David, or just “My Sweet Lord”-style unconscious plagiarism? I think we should be told.

    (Incidentally, re the Phil Collins snare sound, it’s Hugh Padgham, not Padham.)

  35. James says:

    The vocals are so special; that I sense some drunkness in his voice.

  36. Anthony Turi says:

    I’ve only really discovered this song – properly discovered it, I mean – in the last year, via my interest in the work of Nile Rodgers and Chic which I write about here:

    http://anthonyturi.net/2013/05/30/musical-beginners-mind-2-chic-i-want-your-love/

    Let’s Dance really is a fantastic piece of music and in my efforts to find out more about it, I’m so glad I have found your blog entry. This is an outstanding piece of writing about music. Respect! Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this.

  37. Bos says:

    Excellent piece. I am 99% sure however, that it was Tony Thompson on drums on Let’s Dance, not Hakim.

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